I started writing this message on a sunny Shabbat morning in Jerusalem, during my first visit to Israel. The first few days of my adventure involved myriad hours touring this ancient city, although people – rather than artifacts – made the biggest impression on me.
I am a Christian and my concept of Israel has mostly been based on Biblical knowledge, an amalgamation of history and faith. As an American working for a Jewish communal organization, I have some notion of Israel’s importance in the global arena – but I have not always had detailed reasons for supporting Israel that I can share with others.
During my travels with journalists and others from the American Jewish Press Association, we shared a post-Shabbat dinner discussion with several people from the Jerusalem-based Shalom Hartman Institute, “a center of transformative thinking and teaching that addresses the major challenges facing the Jewish people and elevates the quality of Jewish life in Israel and around the world.”
Dr. Marcie Lenk, a Hartman Institute fellow, discussed the program she directs, “New Paths: Christians Engaging in Israel” project. She cited results of a Pew Research Center Report (December 2012), noting that 50 percent of American Evangelical Christians sympathize with Israel, 10 percent with Palestine and 27 percent sympathizing with both. She worked with a Christian team to develop an “Introduction to Israel” course for Christians, taught by Christians, rather than Jews. Eight U.S. churches are testing the curriculum.
The idea is to help people think about Israel as “more than the place that Jesus walked,” Lenk said. She ultimately hopes American Christians will connect with modern Israel in some way. While the course includes some history, that is not its sole focus. The Institute wanted to avoid getting into “dueling history books,” she said. Instead, Christians can read Israel’s Proclamation of Independence and discuss what it meant for Jews, how Israel has been portrayed by American and global media – and whether Israel has yet met the goals set forth in 1948. The idea is to demonstrate the complexity of modern Israel, Lenk said. Poetry – written by both Israelis and Palestinians – is also part of the curriculum.
My experience in Israel was emotional and inspiring. As I walked through Jerusalem’s Old City, the spicy scents, raucous chatter and bright colors provided a backdrop of history against the bumpy stones layered beneath my feet – a reminder of what life might have been like when Jesus walked those same streets 2,000 years or so ago.
For several days, ancient Jerusalem consumed my mind. Archaeological treasures were everywhere I looked. There was so much history, so much to learn – it was almost overwhelming. At the same time, people dressed in modern garb, drove cars on the streets, ate together, argued about election results and breathed life into the ancient scenery. Far more than a tourist destination, Israel is home for 7.9 million diverse people who make Israel a daily experiment in democracy on the world stage.
I now have a concrete connection to Israel that I lacked prior to a few weeks ago. While Israel is far too complex to understand in the context of one week, I have a much better grasp of its culture and people, of the landscape, and a connection to my faith tradition that defies my previous imagination. I believe dialogue between people of different cultures is exciting and necessary for finding common ground. I hope the Hartman Institute’s New Paths program promotes this kind of open communication, which in my opinion, has the potential to change the world for the better.
For more on the Shalom Hartman Institute, visit http://hartman.org.il/
This originally ran in my JUF News blog, “Outside In.”